Upgrading my HTC Hero to Android 2.1

Yesterday, Sprint and HTC released Android 2.1 for the HTC Hero. Upgrading the phone underscores the differences in the Android and Apple iPhone platforms. One is consumer friendly (Apple), and one isn’t (Android). One is built for the general public (Apple), and one is built for the geeky, Linux-loving, tech savvy market (Android). Apple is building the computer (and phone, and tablet) for the rest of us. Google is a company of programmers and engineers building platforms for other programmers and engineers.

Here is what I had to do to upgrade my Android phone to 2.1

First, I had to wait. Google announced Android 2.1 several months ago. But because HTC layers their Sense UI over the Android foundation, HTC had to update that system to work with 2.1. Then Sprint had to approve the release. So there are a lot of fingers in this pie. In this case, good things come to those who wait, and the Sense UI update looks great and works really well.

To run the upgrade, you have to connect the Hero via USB cable to a computer. In this case, that computer has to be Windows. Since my main computer is a 15″ MacBook Pro running Mac OS X, this was a problem. I happen to keep a Windows 7 partition — thank you, Boot Camp — around for testing and occasional gaming, so I rebooted into Windows 7. I connected the Hero via USB.

I downloaded the Android 2.1 update — a 117 mb file — and attempted to run the update. Oops, it can’t connect to the phone. I gotta install a driver.

This was the most annoying part. I don’t sync my phone to anything Windows, but I still have to install the sync software and drivers. I attempt to install the driver software, but the installer was throwing an error on the ADB driver. Turns out, I’m running Windows 7 64-bit, not 32-bit, and the ADB driver isn’t 64-bit compatible. I hit Google and did a search. I download a 64-bit ADB driver from Softpedia, which I had to manually install. (On the upside, the first third party driver I found ended up working.)

I’m sorry, but Windows sucks. Even this more user-friendly version, Windows 7, just sucks. Normal, everyday users are not going to jump through these stupid hoops.

Once the sync software can recognize the phone, THEN I can run the Android 2.1 upgrade.

There are ample warnings on the various update pages that the upgrade process will COMPLETELY ERASE the phone, your installed apps, files, photos, contacts… EVERYTHING. So, before I commit to the upgrade process, I copied off the couple of files I had in the photos folder, and I ran a final sync on the Google Calendar and Contacts apps.

The upgrade itself went smoothly, and only lasted a couple of minutes, not the “over 10 minutes” the on-screen warning stated.

The initial phone startup following the upgrade took a while — several minutes. But everything worked the first time, and the phone was left in a pristine, manufacturer default setup.

Finally, I had to re-download EVERY APP I had installed that I wanted back. And I had to reconfigure EVERYTHING again. What a pain.

Compared to my iPhone experiences, this was night and day. Apple, through iTunes, backs up everything before running updates, and restores everything afterward. I don’t remember any iPhone experience resulting in my having to start over from scratch. By comparison, when I traded in my iPhone for the HTC Hero, iTunes remembered everything I had on the iPhone. When I purchased an iPad a few months later, the first sync with iTunes resulted in restoring all my iPhone apps, settings, and data. This end-to-end backup and restore was flawless and entirely user friendly. (Critics could say this comparison highlights the benefit that comes with “golden handcuffs”, and doesn’t properly represent the relative downsides to the Apple walled garden.)

Google has a lot to learn about managing version upgrades.

Hello, HTC Hero

Back in mid-December, I started thinking seriously about upgrading my cellphone from the Blackberry 8073e to … something else.

I’ve had a company-issued iPhone for a year or so, and it is cool, no doubt. But the AT&T service in my home doesn’t work — the signal is too weak for some reason. So switching to AT&T isn’t an option for me.

Sticking with my existing carrier, Sprint, my main contenders then became the HTC Hero and Blackberry Tour. Both looked like worthy smartphone upgrades. I had used the Blackberry OS for years, and knew what to expect there. But this hot, new Google OS, Android, has some buzz. And since I’m a heavy Google Apps user, the idea of automatically syncing with all the data and e-mail I have on Google already seemed like a dream.

After several weeks of mulling my options, I took the plunge and got a HTC Hero.

After living with the Hero for two days, I have to say I like the new phone quite a lot. I’m happily surprised that most of the apps I used heavily on the iPhone are also available on Android, and if an app isn’t available then there is something very similar or even better out there. (One app that I like a lot on the iPhone is the New York Times app, but on Android there is a USA Today app that is just fantastic!)

I do wish the Hero screen was larger. The phone feels good in the hand, and everything looks just beautiful. But this phone is less capable as a reader than the iPhone is. Otherwise, the HTC Hero is a real win.